Friday, December 16, 2005

Happy 100th, E=MC^2

When the centennial of the publication of Einstein's first paper on relativity came around two months ago, a crowd of three or four of the usual science journals celebrated and the ripple died out in a few days. I see a few comments to the effect that we won't see such breakthroughs again. Some comments are full of misgivings that the net effect of the material mastery our science has given us has been brutal misuse. Mostly I see a lack of comment. I am dismayed at how few Americans consider science one of mankind's greatest acheivements. To some, its a foreign language, used to cloak the ambitions of smart or at least educated people. A few say there is nothing we need to know beyond their interpretation of some scripture. And way too many vote if not voice an opinion like "thats too hard to understand, I want a simple world!"

The harms we have done nature and ourselves cannot be blamed on science, which saw those harms before any others were alarmed. The optimism of the 1950's for science as a spigot of Tommorow Land wonder products was a mix of ignorance, budding consumerism and burgeoning corporations. Currently, a more realistic view does not rule out science for a technical fix to our biggest problem. Until we can understand why we are creatures who could see tomorrow but are more likely to just try and have our cake and eat it too, no technology we develop will long go unabused.

Think of how the world looked to the nerds of 1905:
  • There were "just a few little details" to be worked out about the atom, why for instance did it radiate and how.
  • The universe was euclidian and straight lines, by god, were just straight.
  • few doubted that you could, though it would be costly, know the exact position of everything and calculate the future positions.
  • A nagging little absence of an aether, to wave for electromagnetic waves as water or air do for their waves.
But mostly, we were pretty sure we had it all but figured out.

Take heart nerds. We have ALWAYS percieved ourselves as being at that point on the great learning curve of omniscience and we probably always will...its an exciting place to hang out.

The rest of us should have a heart.

Distrust of science is only a distrust of human nature and what it might do with new knowledge and power. If science has enlarged what we may count upon as fact and shrunken what we were forced to take on faith, that is a burden lifted from those engaged in reality, not an assault on those who prefer myth. There is no shortcut to power but to do your homework.

Flawed as we are, we are in charge and should admit we need science, at the very least, to better understand ourselves. Einstein was more maturely religious on his worst days than Falwell will be if he lives as long as Methuselah.

1 comment:

Davo said...

"The Sleepwalkers" by Arthur Koestler is an interesting read.

(hope have spelled it correctly. An enjoyable look at Astronomy, how mankind has progressed from wondering what the sun was, to the present. In this age of instant communication, we tend to forget the process of discovery.)